I was talking to an acquaintance about issues raising children, like getting them on the bus. She was having trouble with her son, and she had implemented some new rules. She said she wasn’t sure if she was manipulating or managing him, and I was struck by this idea.
Manipulation, in our society, has a negative connotation, whereas management does not. When I decided to write this I looked up the definitions, and I found that they both mean the same thing. Both have a positive meaning – the process of controlling, either people or tools. They both have a negative meaning – unfair influence, trickery, deceit. It’s hard to discern any significant difference between the two words in terms of their actual meaning. Yet manipulation is generally viewed as “bad”, and managing as “good”. More importantly, manipulation is usually used when referencing women, managing when talking about men. Which is bullshit, don’t you think?
Back to my story, I was struck by the different reactions I had to each word. Obviously, if she was manipulating her son she was doing something wrong. Haven’t we all come to believe that manipulation is wrong? This is what people, mostly women, do to slyly get their way. The connotation is suggestive of witchcraft in a way. Women, using their powers of seduction and suggestion, get what they want through manipulation. Manipulation is done on the fly, so to speak. It is usually in reaction to something. Most often the idea lurks in the back of our minds that this is wrong, harmful to the receiver, and beneficial only to the manipulator.
When she suggested that perhaps she was managing him I felt the sense of shame drift away. It was a visceral response. Not only did that ball of shame in the pit of my stomach disappear, but I was overcome with a sense of pride, power, strength and control. Managing, a word usually reserved for men, has a very positive implication. When someone is managing they are doing so in a deliberate, thought out manner, for the good of all. Managing is something powerful, successful people do to promote well being among everyone.
The more I thought about this the angrier I became. I have always viewed myself as manipulative, especially in relation to my children. As I look at these words though, I realize that as a mother, I have been managing them. And their dad. And, the actions I took were deliberate, thoroughly thought out, and were meant for the good of everyone. Sounds like management to me!
This reminds me of the difference between men and women when they lose control. When women lose control they are said to have “freaked out”. Moms do this often. Why? Because children, and often spouses, ignore them – repeatedly. Eventually mom’s lose control because there is a dirty sock on the sofa, or the dishwasher hasn’t been emptied. When this happens the people around her band together, roll their eyes, suggest she might have PMS and tell her to calm down. It is an extremely demeaning response to legitimate anger.
In contrast, when a man loses control, he is said to have “lost his temper”. This is a temporary response, viewed in much higher regard than a woman’s freak out. A dad walks into his office and finds crayons all over his desk. He is angry, and he does exactly what the mom does – he yells at those around him. The response, though, is entirely different. No one accuses him of over reacting or having PMS. If some dare to roll their eyes they certainly don’t do it in front of him. And, while someone might tell him to calm down, it will done in a respectful manner, like “sweetie, calm down and we’ll work this out”, not the “good lord woman, calm down already” that women get.
I never would have thought of this had it not been for my acquaintance pondering it herself. I have been trained to believe that women are manipulative and men simply manage. Women are hysterical, irrational, demanding and subject to uncontrollable outbursts. Men are calm, calculating, in control and rational. Yuck!!
These words came into play so frequently in my life it is little wonder that I am so moved by them. My ex narc used the premise of manipulation so often to describe me, I came to feel that every action I took was an indictment of me as a person. Naturally I felt pretty shitty about myself. I was the manipulative crazy women he put up with. This is what he had me believe. I now see my actions as attempts to manage a terrible situation. I also see clearly how in control I was. I had to be, because I couldn’t count on him to be.
In reality, he was the one out of control. He flew into a rage over what I thought were ridiculous issues. In retrospect I see that his rages were always in relation to him not getting exactly what he wanted. At the time I recall thinking he might be off his rocker, but the idea that he was “managing” his environment leant credence to his words. In other words, if the two of us had the exact same response to the exact same stimuli, he would always fare better in terms of how he was perceived, because he was “managing” while I was “manipulating”.
What a great example of how damaging our language can be! How many women are walking around today feeling terrible about themselves because they believe they are manipulative? In contrast, how many men are walking around feeling strong and competent, because they “manage” the people around them? I hope that these feelings are not the norm in our society, but part of me suspects they might be. That could be the part of me that spent most of her life with a covert narcissist though.
The lesson I’ve learned is two-fold:
- It is imperative that we examine the words we use every day.
- The best way to change the narrative, the damaging belief systems in place, is to make simple changes in the words we use.
I plan to compliment mothers on their ability to manage their children and households. Often. And I plan to emphasize the word managing. Perhaps I can plant the seed of pride in the head of an otherwise worn down mom. How cool would that be???